Monday, March 19, 2012

A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods is his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Bryson chronicles his adventures with his hiking pal interspersed with commentary on various issues regarding the trail, such as the plant and wildlife, the Forest Service, the trail’s creators, etc...  Bryson and his companion soon discover that this endeavor they have embarked on is not so easy, not at all.
I mostly really enjoyed reading this book.  Bryson engages the reader in his account of hiking the trail through witty descriptions of and dialogue with Katz, and intriguing details of the people, scenery, and other things he encounters on the trail.  I enjoyed reading what it was like on the trail, and found myself several times thinking “oh that sounds fun,” but quickly retracting the idea from my head when he would describe the more treacherous, difficult, and less glamourous situations on the trail.  
This book was more then just an account on some guys Appalachian Trail adventure.  Bryson dedicated several pages of each chapter to some social commentary regarding the trail.  What I found most interesting are the things he said about the Forest Service.  
I had never really given much thought to the Forest Service before, and just assumed it was a pretty self-explanatory organization.  
“The Forest Service is truly an extraordinary institution.  A lot of people, seeing that word forest in the title, assume it has something to do with looking after trees.  In fact, no though that was the original plan...In fact, mostly what the Forest Service does is build roads” (Bryson 52-53).  
When I read this I was shocked.  Build roads?  Really?  Is that not the opposite of protecting trees and wildlife?  Tearing down trees and disrupting nature to build roads is what the Forest Service does?  There are more miles of roads in national forests than the amount of miles in America’s interstate system.  “Show [the Forest Service] a stand of trees anywhere and they will regard it thoughtfully for a long while, and say at last ‘You know, we could put a road here’” (Bryson 53).  And why exactly does the Forest Service do this?  To allow loggers to access more areas of loggable land.  So the Forest Service is tearing down trees to allow people to get to more areas where they can tear down trees.  Not only does this get rid of acres upon acres of trees but it disrupts the ecosystem itself.  “This isn’t science.  It’s rape” (Bryson 54).  This was just extremely shocking to me, and the most striking thing of the whole book.  
I also enjoyed Bryson’s commentary on the growing capitalism in small towns.  When him and Katz stopped in some towns, he noticed the disappearance of the small, family-owned and operated stores, and instead found many empty store fronts and a K-mart.  A highly disturbing and growing fad.  I think after spending so much time hiking in the forest, seeing all that consumerism rapidly replacing small mom and pop shops can put a new perspective on big corporations taking over.  Bryson spent much of the book reflecting on the beauty and pureness of his surroundings, and then coming to a town that has been taken over by ugly consumerism and cheesy tourism, like Gatlinburg, can be eye-opening.  
I do have to say that I was disappointed that he did not actually hike the entire trail.  I was rooting for him the whole time, and was really excited to be reading the account of someone who hiked the whole Appalachian Trail, and was kind of taken aback when him and Katz first skipped a section of the trail and skipped to Virginia.  The second half of the book was not as interesting to read as the first half, since he was basically just taking day trips to hike the trail.  This was a little disheartening.  I really wanted to see them hike the whole trail. 
Overall, though, this was a good read.  It made me reflect on forests and state parks I have been able to visit throughout my life (which has been quite a few), and I think after reading this book I am going to have a new perspective on them, and a new refreshed attitude about exploring nature.  

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